Parents for Safe Child Care

Bill requires day-care soil tests

State Senate considers bill that calls for arsenic and lead tests by 2009

Saturday, March 19, 2005


Dozens of privately owned child-care centers and preschools in areas affected by wind-blown arsenic and lead from the former Asarco smelter in Ruston would be required to test soils if a bill being considered in the state Senate becomes law.

The testing would be required by 2009. If high concentrations of arsenic and lead are found, day-care and preschool operators would have to take steps to reduce children’s exposure.

The state House of Representatives on March 11 unanimously approved House Bill 1605. It’s now under consideration in the Senate.

Previous government attempts to test soils at child-care centers and preschools have yielded limited results.

Only 5 percent to 10 percent of child-care centers in contaminated areas have allowed sampling under a voluntary program, according to Jim Pendowski, the state Department of Ecology’s toxics cleanup program manager.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines), said he wants to protect children, who are most vulnerable to harm from arsenic and lead.

As an example, he spoke of his niece, Vivienne, who is 2. “She’ll show up from an afternoon in the yard with her hands and face covered in mud,” he said.

Besides being a poison, arsenic causes cancer. Health officials blame lead exposure for developmental delays in children.

Arsarco officials oppose the measure. At a recent hearing before the House Natural Resources, Ecology & Parks Committee, Karen Pickett, who lives in Ruston and represents Asarco, said the measure is unnecessary and “will do nothing to help Washington children.”

Tom Aldrich, Asarco’s vice president for environmental affairs, declined Friday to expand on those comments.

The bill would permit the Department of Ecology to assist child-care centers and schools that need help, but doesn’t specify how much money would be available. If day-care centers and preschools don’t make plans for cleanup, they would be required to tell parents the results of soils tests.

But the measure doesn’t spell out a penalty for failure to comply.

The site of the former Asarco copper smelter is the focus of an ongoing Superfund cleanup. The smelter closed in 1985 after nearly a century of operations.

Since then, state officials have found that smoke from the smelter spread arsenic and lead over 1,000 square miles of the Puget Sound area.

The areas most heavily exposed are in Pierce and King County, but contamination extends from Snohomish County to Lacey, includes the Gig Harbor Peninsula and reaches as far east as Issaquah.

Some day-care owners appreciate soils testing. Others worry about whether they could afford costly fixes.

“If I have something hazardous that could affect the children, I want to know because I don’t want that liability. I can’t imagine anyone would object to that,” said Petra Waiters, who owns Little Lamb Children’s Center in Tacoma.

But Kathy Bouchee, who runs Bouchee’s Busy Bees in University Place, said she already safeguards children’s health. She said she doesn’t let her preschoolers dig in the dirt. “We have sand tables and we wash before we come inside,” she said.

If testing shows excessive soil contamination, the state ought to cover cleanup costs, she said. Otherwise, she probably wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Two years ago, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department workers tried to test soils at 131 child-care centers and preschools in areas where soils have been tainted by smelter dust. But workers ended up testing only 28, said Marian Abbett, who manages the Ecology Department’s smelter plume project.

As it turned out, the highest concentrations of arsenic at a Pierce County facility were found in the soils on the grounds of a church-based preschool. But supervisors at Skyline Presbyterian Preschool said they never allow their charges to play outside the Westgate-area church.

A similar voluntary soil-sampling effort took place in King County. Of 435 facilities contacted, only 28 were sampled, Abbett said.

This year, Public Health-Seattle & King County renewed the effort. The agency recently asked 104 child-care centers and preschools to grant access for soils testing, said spokeswoman Hilary Karasz. Soils have or will be tested at 78 other sites, most of which are child-care centers or preschools.

As approved by the House, Upthegrove’s measure would apply only to Western Washington and not to facilities located on agricultural land.

“Our desire was to have it go statewide,” said Ecology Department spokeswoman Caitlin Cormier.

Ecology Department officials estimate that 185,590 acres of land across the state is contaminated with lead arsenate. Soil contamination is particularly widespread in Central Washington where orchardists applied the pesticide for decades before a ban.

But because Eastern Washington lawmakers oppose soil testing, Upthegrove modified the bill to limit its scope. “It was just too big of a political hurdle,” he said.

Parents for Safe Child Care is a 501(c)(3) non-profit